Monday, May 02, 2022

Swinburne's Free Will Theodicy for the Holocaust

In this post, I want to critically assess Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne's theodicy for the Holocaust. I think his theodicy is of philosophical interest, for three reasons. First, I think Swinburne is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, natural theologians of the 20th-century. Second, Swinburne is an evidentialist and Bayesian; he shares the same general epistemological framework used by Paul Draper, who is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, atheist philosophers of religion. Third, Swinburne has not only written a book-length defense of Christian theism against the argument from evil, but has explicitly offered his theistic explanation for the Holocaust. For these three reasons, then, Swinburne makes a perfect foil for my evidential argument from the Holocaust

In his book-length defense of Christian theism against the argument from evil, Providence and the Problem of Evil, Swinburne comments specifically on the Holocaust. I want to quote what Swinburne writes about the Holocaust in its entirety. He writes:

Human choices, I have emphasized, may reinforce each other and have long-term consequences; and it is good that they should. The possibility that our bad choices will cause the suffering of victims distant in time and space (which God is unlikely to prevent) gives us a yet greater responsibility in the choices we make. The suffering and deaths of the Jewish victims of the Nazi concentration camps were the result of a web of bad choices stretching back over centuries and continents. So many humans spread false rumours about Jews, developed anti-Semitic propaganda without considering counter-arguments, limited the employment and educational possibilities for Jews, confined Jews to ghettos, and so on, until Hitler was able to issue orders to exterminate Jews which had some prospect of being carried out. And the sufferings and deaths in the concentration camps have in turn caused or made possible a whole web of actions and reactions stretching forward over the century of sympathy for victims, helping their relatives (to set up the state of Israel), avoiding any such event ever again, etc. The possibility of the Jewish suffering and deaths at the time made possible serious heroic choices for people normally (in consequence often of their own bad choices and the choices of others) too timid to make them (e.g. to harbour the prospective victims), and for people normally too hard-hearted (again as a result of previous bad choices) to make them, e.g., for a concentration camp guard not to obey orders. And they make possible reactions of courage (e.g., by the victims), of compassion, sympathy, penitence, forgiveness, reform, avoidance of repetition, etc., by others. (On the goodness of different kinds of reaction to suffering, see the next chapter.) Of course, I am not saying that anyone other than God would have the right to allow such things to happen, without intervening to stop them. (On God's right, see Chapter 12.) And, as I am emphasizing throughout, there is obviously a limit to the moral evil which God will allow us to cause (as there is to the natural evil by which he will allow us to be afflicted), but it is not obvious where that limit lies. And note again that the suffering in the Nazi concentration camps was the result of a very large number of free bad choices over many centuries, and made possible very many good choices.[1]

According to Swinburne, God was morally justified in allowing the Nazis to murder six million Jews (who Swinburne thinks are God's chosen people). Why? Because that gave the Nazis significant freedom to make "bad choices." Why was it good for God to allow the Nazis to make 'bad choices' like murdering six million Jews? Because that made it possible for other people (who were neither Nazis nor Jews) to (i) show sympathy for victims; (ii) help their relatives, and (iii) harbor the victims. It made it possible for (iv) Nazi guards to disobey orders. Finally, it made it possible for victims to show (v) compassion, (vi) sympathy, (vii) penitence, (viii) forgiveness, and (ix) reform. 

This version of the free will theodicy employs the following expansion of theism:

T2: God exists, and one of His final ends is for humans to have the freedom* to make very important moral decisions.[2]

Let us agree that (i) - (ix) are all goods, viz., things which have positive value. Even granting that, this theodicy is not a strong (=successful) answer to the evidential argument from evil. 

First, Swinburne assumes that humans have libertarian freedom, but he is well aware of the fact that his position is controversial, even among some of his fellow Christians. But let's put that to the side. 

Second, Swinburne assumes that the value of goods (i) - (ix) is so great as to outweigh the enormous disvalue of the horrors of the Holocaust. But why? From the fact (i) - (ix) are valuable, it does not follow that their value is so great as to outweigh the obvious disvalue of the six million lives prematurely ended by the Holocaust.[3] And notice that many of the goods listed in (i) - (ix) are only contingently valuable: their value depends upon evil, pain, suffering, etc. existing. For example, forgiveness isn't valuable in situations where someone hasn't done anything wrong. So there is a kind of circular justification here: evil is necessary for forgiveness, but forgiveness is necessary for evil (in the sense of justifying why God allows evil to occur). 

Third, even if the previous response were somehow incorrect, notice the distribution of value and disvalue. Who benefits from the Nazi's ability to choose to murder Jews? The Nazis. Who is harmed by that same freedom? The Jews. The idea that the 'benefits' of the Holocaust to Jews, as captured by (v) - (ix), is as preposterous as it is offensive. 

Fourth, Swinburne admits that there must be a limit to the amount of suffering which God, if He existed, would allow. I agree, but notice that, in order to maintain his theism, Swinburne is forced to deny that the Holocaust exceeds that limit. While it is logically possible that God exists and has a morally justifying reason for allowing the Holocaust, that mere possibility doesn't deny the fact that horrors like the Holocaust are better predicted by naturalism than by theism. To be more precise, naturalism doesn't make a prediction here, whereas theism predicts the non-existence of horrors; so perhaps a better way to make the point is that horrors like the Holocaust are mystified by theism but not by naturalism, where mystification means the opposite of prediction.

In conclusion, Swinburne's theodicy for the Holocaust fails and fails badly.


[1] Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 151-52.

[2] Paul Draper, "Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists," Nous 23 (1989): 331-50 at 343. 

[3] See Laura W. Ekstrom, God, Suffering, and the Value of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Reply to a (Sunni) Islamic Theodicy for the Argument from Pain and Pleasure

In reply to Paul Draper's evidential argument from pain and pleasure, a self-identified Sunni Muslim proposed the following theodicy:

T*: God exists, and God uses human pain to purify the soul.

"In even a prick of the finger, the Muslim has sins wiped away from him and in such pain as if he is made anew if he has actually taken the Hadith of the Prophet any further than his own lips. So while it may not fully fulfill the purpose of detection of threats or illnesses, it does its job in relation to the Islamic framework assuming its truth."
In order to evaluate this theodicy, we should apply Draper's Weighted Average Principle (WAP). I will assume that readers are already familiar with this principle; readers who need an introduction may consult my explanation in section 3.3.2 here. I will argue that this Islamic theodicy does not significantly raise Pr(O | theism) for two reasons. First, I will argue that Pr(T* | T) is not high. Second, I will argue that Pr(O | T*) is not high. 

First, the antecedent probability of T* on theism, Pr(T* | T), is not high. Independent of the reasons for thinking that Islamic theism is true, it is far from obvious that there is any reason on theism to predict that pain purifies the soul. (I will call this sort of pain "purification pain.") On the assumption that T* is true, one would expect that God would allow a human to experience purification pain if and only if the purification pain occurs reasonably soon after the human sins, creating the need for soul purification, and the amount or intensity of the purification pain is proportional to the degree of wrongdoing committed by the sinner. But T* conflicts with these expectations. It does not require that the purification pain occur reasonably soon after the sin is committed. Nor is the amount or intensity of purification pain proportional to the degree of wrongdoing. 

Furthermore, if a person were to rob a bank and then, a week later, get run over by a car (and survive), the pain that person experiences from their injuries would not somehow remove their guilt before God for robbing the bank, nor would it necessarily result in that person's moral growth, especially if the person isn't aware of a connection between their (purported) purification pain and the sin(s) which necessitated it.

Thus, for both reasons, Pr(T* | T), is low. 

Second, the antecedent probability of O on T*, Pr(O | T*), is not high. We may expand upon the previous paragraph's description of T*'s expectations as follows. On the assumption that T* is true, one would expect that God would allow a human to experience pain only under the following circumstances:
  • (a) the humans experiences purification pain, which occurs reasonably soon after the human sins, creating the need for soul purification, and the amount or intensity of the purification pain is proportional to the degree of wrongdoing committed by the sinner; or 
  • (b) the human experiences non-purification pain which is biologically appropriate but not biologically gratuitous. 
But O conflicts with all these expectations. This can be seen by considering O1, O2, and O3 individually. Regarding O1, T* is not obviously relevant to biologically useful pain and pleasure reported in O1: the whole point of T* is to explain biologically gratuitous pain. As for O2, T* is by definition irrelevant to the pain and pleasure experienced by moral patients reported in O2. This leaves O3. O3 includes biologically gratuitous human pain and pleasure. T* is arguably relevant to that portion of O3. I will make three comments. First, there is no discernable pattern between the amount of pain experienced by a person and their prior wrongdoing. Second, nor is there any independent reason--independent of T*--to think that all moral agents who experience biologically gratuitous pain "deserved it," such that their biologically gratuitous pain was an appropriate amount of purification pain. Indeed, Sam tells me that the degree of pain plays no role in Sunni theology regarding soul purification: even a mere "prick of the finger" is sufficient to purify the soul. Third, while T* might provide the Sunni Muslim with reason to expect some cases of biologically gratuitous pain, it would not provide the Sunni Muslim with reason to expect pain that is both "biologically gratuitous" and horrific, such as the pain suffered by a person as they burn to death. If any pain, even a prick of the finger will do, then why do some people endure overwhelming pain? T* provides no reason to expect this.

Therefore, Pr(O | T*) is not greater, much less significantly greater, than Pr(P | theism & ~T*), and hence this Sunni Islamic theodicy fails to significantly raise Pr(O | theism). 

My Reply to the "There is No Such Thing as Evil if God Doesn't Exist" Objection

I inserted this into my most recent update to my essay, "The Holocaust is Strong Evidence Against Theism," but I'm reposting it as a standalone blog post to draw attention to it. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Do Euthyphro-Style Dilemmas Provide a Decisive Refutation of Theistic Metaethics?

For roughly 30 years, I have been skeptical of the idea that Euthyphro-style dilemmas provide a decisive refutation of theistic metaethics. I have finally started to organize my thoughts on this topic. 

The link below is to an incomplete draft of an essay I've been writing about Euthyphro-style dilemmas against theistic metaethics. Any comments would be appreciated.


UPDATE (16-March-2022):

In response to the excellent feedback from Jason Thibodeau (see the comments below), I have slightly revised the draft. Version 2 of the draft may be found here:


Monday, January 31, 2022

The Holocaust is Strong Evidence Against Theism

(Revised 27 April 2022)
(Revised 1 March 2022)
(Revised 14 February 2022)
(Revised 7 February 2022)

The following tweet recently appeared on my Twitter feed: 

In this blog post, I intend to defend a weaker version of Primo Levi's claim. I do not claim that Auschwitz makes God's existence impossible. Rather, I intend to argue that the Holocaust is extremely strong evidence against theism and, other evidence held equal, makes God's existence improbable.

1. Definitions

  • Source Idealism (a/k/a "supernaturalism"): The mental exists and, if the physical exists, the mental explains why the physical exists.
  • Source Physicalism (a/k/a "naturalism"): The physical exists and, if the mental exists, the physical explains why the mental exists.
  • Monotheism (hereafter "theism"): A type of supernaturalism. It adds on the claim that exactly one personal mental entity exists; it has the title "God;" God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect; and, if the physical exists, God created the physical for a purpose. N.B. that "theism" as defined here excludes:
    • "deism" (the belief in an all-powerful and all-knowing being who is morally indifferent); 
    • "quasi-theism" (the belief that there exists a creator god who is not both all-powerful and all-knowing), 
    • "polytheism" (the belief that there exist many gods but not "God"),
    • "pantheism" (God is the universe), or 
    • "panentheism" (the belief that the world is in God and God is in the world). 

2. Preamble for Philosophers

Before I present the argument, it may be useful to locate the argument within the various ways philosophers have categorized arguments from evil against theism.

1. The moral vs natural evil distinction. The so-called 'argument from evil' against theism, also known as "the problem of evil," is really a family of arguments. The most well-known way of classifying the siblings in this family is the familiar moral evil vs. natural evil distinction; various evils are categorized by their source. Evils which are the result of moral agents exercising their ability to choose evil are classified as "moral evil," whereas 'evils,' such as hurricanes or earthquakes, which are the result of nature or natural law, are categorized as "natural evil." I have never been a fan of this terminology because I've always found it odd to characterize natural phenomena such as floods, volcanic eruptions, and the like as 'evil.' I'll say more about the meaning and scope of 'evil' in a moment.

2. The logical vs evidential distinction. Another way of categorizing arguments from 'evil' is the logical vs evidential distinction. In the minds of many, a "logical argument from evil" may be described as follows.
A "logical argument from evil" is an argument which claims that theism is logically inconsistent with any evil, whereas an "evidential argument from evil" does not involve an inconsistency claim. Instead, it merely claims that God is improbable because of evil. Furthermore, only the late atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie defended an argument which claimed that some fact about evil is incompatible with theism; the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga showed that any kind of evil is compatible with God's existence; and nobody today now defends a logical argument from evil.

But, in fact, much of the above way of thinking about the distinction is wrong. First, logical arguments from evil aren't dead; they are alive and well. Recent and contemporary defenders include Raymond Bradley, Richard Gale, J.L. Schellenberg, Quentin Smith, Jordan Howard Sobel, James Sterba, and Ryan Stringer.[1] Second, Plantinga refuted Mackie's broad claim that the existence of evil is incompatible with theism; he did not refute the sorts of narrower inconsistency claims made by some logical arguments from evil.[2] For example, some arguments from evil claim that theism is inconsistent with gratuitous or pointless evil; whether one agrees with these arguments or not, this type of argument was not refuted by Plantinga in his refutation of Mackie. But let's put these objections to the side. 

I've never much cared for the logical vs evidential distinction because it sounds funny to outsiders. If someone talks about a "logical argument from evil," it invites the retort, "As opposed to what? An illogical argument from evil?" Besides, it applies a distinction to arguments from evil which are not regularly applied to any other argument about God's existence. For example, philosophers of religion don't routinely differentiate 'logical cosmological arguments' for theism from 'evidential cosmological arguments' for theism.

3. The general vs specific distinction. A third way of categorizing arguments from evil is based upon whether an argument focuses on a general fact about 'evil' (such as suffering) or a specific instance of evil (such as William Rowe's famous example of a fawn being burned alive). 

4. Distinctions based on types of impact. This leads to the fourth (and my preferred) way of categorizing arguments from 'evil.' This method begins with the observation that the word 'evil' in "problem of evil" or "argument from evil" is really just badness, not just moral badness, and so the scope of arguments from 'evil' includes much more than evil; it also includes suffering, violence (which, perhaps counterintuitively, need not include suffering), and dysteleology / imperfection. This method of categorizing arguments from 'evil' focuses on the type of impact caused by states of affairs. Purdue University philosopher Paul Draper has argued that these impacts include biological pain (as opposed to pleasure), languishing (as opposed to flourishing), and vice (as opposed to virtue). Additionally, philosopher J.L. Schellenberg's list includes horrors and violence

In this post, I will defend an argument based on a specific instance of evil, the Holocaust. My argument will contain elements of both moral and natural evil. It is an evidential argument. And in doing so, I will appeal to various features of the Holocaust which are the focus of individual arguments: the biological role of pain; horrors; divine silence during tragedies; and former believers.  

3. Qualitative Features of the Holocaust 

Let's begin with a summary of what the Holocaust was. Here is the description provided by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM):
The Holocaust (1933–1945) was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million European Jews by the Nazi German regime and its allies and collaborators.[3]
Holocaust persecution of Jews included anti-Semitic laws which made discrimination against Jews not just legally permissible but required; various forms of public identification and exclusion; organized violence; physical displacement; internment; widespread theft and plunder; and forced labor.  The Nazis murdered six million Jews, about two-thirds of all Jews living in Europe, primarily through mass shootings and death camps.[4] Philosopher Andrea Weisberger explains what makes the Holocaust a unique and egregious example of horrendous evil.

The intent was to annihilate, without remainder, the Jewish people. This is genocide in its purest, most horrific configuration. What occurred to the Jews was not exactly like what occurred to other people who came within the German grasp, though these others suffered in the same concentration camps and endured the same physical and emotional deprivations. What was singular about the Nazi plan for the Jews was the intention to completely and categorically destroy an entire people simply because they existed, and for no other reason. The fact of existence as a Jew was reason enough for the Jewish death sentence. And this was the rationale for turning 1.5 million Jewish children into smoke. No other intention seems as purely evil. This intention marks the Holocaust as a different kind of evil, a kind of evil which is unfathomable.[5]

Also, notice that, although not directly relevant to theism, the Holocaust would seem to be even more problematic for any specific version of theism which regards the Jews as God's chosen people. But, rather than pursue that argument, in the sections which follow I will enumerate specific features of the Holocaust which are surprising on the assumption that theism is true.

3.1. Biological Pain and the Suffering of Holocaust Victims

By all accounts, Holocaust victims experienced pain which was often biologically gratuitous, chronic, and debilitating. As just a partial description of this pain, consider the USHMM's summary of sicknesses and epidemics in the concentration camps:
The overall conditions of camp life ensured that many people fell sick from the very first months, and their numbers rose steadily over time. Physical harassment of the prisoners resulted in numerous broken limbs and suppurating sores on the buttocks, usually after flogging.

The winter, and also late fall and early spring, saw numerous cases of colds, pneumonia, and frostbite which developed not infrequently into gangrene. The dreadful sanitation conditions caused skin diseases, and above all scabies.

Almost all prisoners suffered from boils, rashes, and abscesses that resulted mostly from vitamin deficiency and infections.

1942-1943 (and especially 1942) went down in the history of the camp as a period of raging epidemics, and especially typhus, which claimed the greatest number of lives. Many prisoners suffered from tuberculosis, ague (malaria), meningitis, pemphigus, dysentery, and Durchfall, a disorder of the digestive system caused by improper and inadequate food.

In camp conditions, all these illnesses were highly acute. A characteristic camp illness was starvation sickness. It was usually accompanied by diarrhea (often bloody), swollen legs, impaired vision and hearing, memory loss, nervous breakdown and, above all, exhaustion to the point of collapse. The majority of prisoners suffered from several medical conditions simultaneously.[6]
All of these illnesses and epidemics were painful for the prisoners who experienced them; some must have been excruciating. Some of that pain was likely biologically useful: it motivated prisoners to take action which enabled their survival and, in some cases, also reproduction after liberation from the camps. But, sadly, for many if most prisoners, the physical pain they experienced was biologically gratuitous: their pain was not biologically useful. For them, it did not contribute to any of the "4 Fs:" fighting, fleeing, feeding, and fornicating. For most prisoners, their pain did not help them to fight or flee from their captors, to gather food, or to reproduce. 

Naturalism (conjoined with a Darwinian explanation of the biological role of pain and pleasure) can explain the biologically gratuitous nature of the physical pain experienced by Holocaust victims. If naturalism (and Darwinism) is true, then, if pain and pleasure exist, there is no reason to expect the biological mechanisms which produce pain pleasure to be fine-tuned in such a way as to prevent biologically gratuitous pain and pleasure. Indeed, such fine-tuning seems impossible if naturalism is true. Blind nature has no ability to predict when an organism is no longer able to achieve biological goals like survival or reproduction, and thus natural selection has no ability to "select" for features which would prevent gratuitous pain and pleasure.

In contrast, theism is not constrained by the limitations of blind nature. If theism is true, God did not have to create life using unguided evolution. God might have specially created each form of life directly. God also could have used guided evolution, causing mutations to achieve God's goals. In any case, the problem for theists (whether evolutionists or not) is that they need to offer a probable, morally justifying reason why God allowed facts about the biological role of pain and pleasure to obtain. Why? Because theism, by definition, posits a morally perfect being. Thus, theists must believe that physical pain and pleasure not only have a biological explanation but also a moral explanation. As Draper asks:
For example, is there some greater good that, because of its logical connections to suffering, requires that suffering be used to motivate animals to pursue the biological goal of self-preservation? Does some moral end make it desirable for suffering to continue even when it serves no biological purpose? ... On the no-design hypothesis, Darwinian explanations of good and evil work whether the answers to these and many similar questions is 'yes' or 'no.' But on theism, the answer must in every single case be 'yes.' On theism, natural selection cannot drive evolution unless its doing so coincides with the moral goals of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect creator. And that's a really big coincidence that the no-design hypothesis doesn't need.[7] 
To avoid any misunderstandings, I do not claim that naturalism, even when combined with Darwinism, predicts the Holocaust or even the more specific fact of the pain experienced by its victims. Rather, the biological role (and apparent moral randomness) of the physical pain experienced by Holocaust victims is much more probable on the assumption that naturalism (conjoined with a Darwinian explanation of the biological role of pain and pleasure) is true than on the assumption that theism (conjoined with a Darwinian explanation of the biological role of pain and pleasure) is true. 

3.2. The Horrors of the Holocaust

Not only did Holocaust victims experience biologically gratuitous pain, but they also experienced horrors. The late Christian philosopher and Anglican priest Marilyn McCord Adams provides the following definition of horrors.
For the sake of argument, let me define "horrors" as "evils participation in the doing or suffering of which constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant's life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to him/her on the whole." Dramatic examples include the rape of a woman and axing off of her arms, psychophysical torture whose ultimate goal is disintegration of personality, betrayal of one's deepest loyalties, cannibalizing of one's own off-spring, child abuse of the sort described by Ivan Karamazov, participation in the Nazi death camps, the explosion of nuclear bombs over populated areas. More "domestic" horrors are found in corporate cultures of dishonesty co-opting workers into betraying their deepest values, parental incest, school-ground bullying, having to choose which of one's children shall live and which be executed by terrorist, being the accidental and/or unwitting agent of the disfigurement or death of those ones loves best, schizophrenia and severe clinical depression, and degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis that unravel and/or imprison the person we once knew.[8]
Even a cursory knowledge of the Holocaust makes clear why it is such a dramatic example of horror. In his autobiography Night, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel describes several horrific events which, considered individually, would cause some people to doubt if their life was worth living; Wiesel witnessed many such events. Here are just three examples.
  • On the train which transported Jews from Romania to Auschwitz, Wiesel reports meeting a woman who had been separated from her husband and two of her sons. In Wiesel's words, "The separation had totally shattered her.... [She] had lost her mind."[9] She experienced hallucinations and began to scream, no longer able to care for the little boy next to her who was her son. Eventually her outbursts were so unbearable that the other Jewish passengers bound, gagged, and hit her until she fell silent.[10]
  • When the train arrived at Auschwitz, Wiesel's family, like all the rest, was separated by sex. Because his Wiesel's mother and younger sister died at Auschwitz, this separation meant he would never see them again.[11]
  • Shortly after his separation, Wiesel witnessed the bodies of small children and babies being emptied from a truck and burned in a ditch. He writes, "Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes . . . children thrown into the flames. (Is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?)"[12]
What makes the horrors of the Holocaust such strong evidence against theism is that theism predicts the non-existence of horrors, including the Holocaust, whereas naturalism makes no such prediction. Why? Three reasons.

First, if God exists, then God is opposed to horrific suffering. As an all-knowing being, God has maximal knowledge of horrific suffering: its causes and its effects, especially its badness for victims of horrific suffering.  Furthermore, as a morally perfect being, God is compassionate. God's knowledge compassion combined with His knowledge of suffering provide God with, at the least, a very strong motive for preventing horrific suffering.[13]  

Second, if God exists, then if any finite personal beings, such as humans, exist, their deepest good is an ever-increasing knowledge of God.  As J.L. Schellenberg writes:
If indeed God is to be construed as perfection personified, then what could be better for finite creatures than to enter ever more fully into the maximally great riches and beauty and glory of God?[14]
Third, if God exists, then humans' deepest good can be achieved without horrors. Following Schellenberg, we may distinguish between the following: "(i) outweighing goods and (ii) the deepest good of personal creatures."[15] Something may be an outweighing good without also being a deepest good. For example, suppose that God exists and humans have libertarian freedom. Many theists argue that the possession of libertarian freedom is an outweighing good, viz., that the value of creaturely freedom outweighs the disvalue of horrors. (And notice that even if we have this kind of freedom and it is of great value, theism provides us with an antecedent reason to think that God would favor the freedom of the Jews and other victims of the Nazis over the freedom of the Nazis themselves.) But, even if the value of creaturely freedom outweighs the disvalue of horrors, it does not follow that an ever-increasing knowledge of God cannot be achieved without horrors.

In contrast to theism, naturalism makes no such prediction regarding the existence or non-existence of horrors. Thus, the horrific aspect of the Holocaust is much more probable on naturalism than on theism. To see how horrors add to the evidence favoring naturalism over theism provided by the biologically gratuitous pain experienced by Holocaust victims, notice that biologically gratuitous pain does not entail horror. It is possible to suffer biologically gratuitous pain and never experience horror; it also possible to never suffer biologically gratuitous pain and experience horror.  So, if all we knew about the Holocaust was that many victims experienced gratuitous pain, we would not yet know if Holocaust victims also experienced horror. Once we "learn" of the horrors of the Holocaust, those horrors become additional evidence favoring naturalism over theism.

3.3. Divine Silence

Another tragic aspect of the Holocaust is the fact that so many victims did not report feeling God's comforting presence. Again, consider the experience of Elie Wiesel. By the age of thirteen, Wiesel was a "deeply observant" Jew who by day "studied Talmud" and by night "would run to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the Temple."[16] But, as his autobiography Night makes clear, he never experienced God's comforting presence, only silence. He writes: "I no longer accepted God's silence."[17]

The fact that there are people who do not seem to feel God's comforting presence in the midst of horrors is much more probable on naturalism than on theism. Imagine being the parent of a small child who must undergo repeated bouts of chemotherapy for the sake of a greater good (the chance to be cured of cancer) which cannot be achieved in any other way. William Rowe explains the problem for theism.

In such instances the parent attends directly to the child throughout its period of suffering, comforts the child to the best of her ability, expresses her concern and love for the child in ways that are unmistakably clear to the child, assures the child that the suffering will end, and tries to explain, as best she can, why it is necessary for her to permit the suffering even though it is in her power to prevent it. In short, during these periods of intentionally permitted intense suffering, the child is consciously aware of the direct presence, love, and concern of the parent, and receives special assurances from the parent that, if not why, the suffering (or the parent's permission of it) is necessary for some distant good.[18]
Furthermore, notice that horrors do not entail divine silence. It is possible to suffer gratuitous pain, experience horrors, and experience divine comfort; it is also possible to suffer gratuitous pain, experience horrors, and not experience divine comfort. Everything else held equal, on the assumption that theism is true, we would expect God, who is not only morally perfect but also loving and compassionate, to comfort victims of horrors. In contrast, if naturalism is true, there is no God and so divine comfort isn't even possible. Thus, divine silence in the face of evil adds to the evidence favoring naturalism over theism provided by the horrors of the Holocaust. 

3.4. Former Believers

In addition to the gratuitous pain, horrors, and divine silence experienced by Holocaust victims, the fact that so many devout Jewish survivors of the Holocaust became nonbelievers provides even more evidence against theism. Turning again to Wiesel's autobiography, we learn that he was an unusually observant Jew as a boy. But, as a result of the horrors he experienced, he stopped praying and doubted the justice of God. He writes: 
Some of the men spoke of God: His mysterious ways, the sins of the Jewish people, and the redemption to come. As for me, I had ceased to pray. I concurred with Job! I was not denying His existence, but I doubted his absolute justice.[19]
Although Wiesel did not become an atheist, he was no longer a (traditional) theist; instead, he became what we might call a deist or quasi-theist. He believed in a creator of the universe, but no longer believed that creator to be morally perfect. He no longer prayed to, gave thanks to, or worshipped God.

To paraphrase Schellenberg, what makes this change so surprising on theism is that individuals like Wiesel, from the perspective of theism, were on the right path when they lost belief in God. Theism predicts the non-existence of former believers like Wiesel.[20] If God exists, it is very surprising that God would permit the loss of relationship that is experienced by former believers. 

Once again, this new item of naturalistic evidence is not entailed by the prior evidence. It is possible to suffer gratuitous pain, experience horrors, not experience divine comfort, and remain a believer; it is also possible to suffer gratuitous pain, experience horrors, not experience divine comfort, and become a former believer. In contrast, if naturalism is true, this is hardly surprising because blind nature neither cares nor can intervene to repair a relationship with a nonexistent being. Thus, former believers add to the evidence favoring naturalism over theism provided by divine silence during the Holocaust. 

3.5. The Argument so Far

Let E represent the evidence to be explained. E is logically equivalent to the conjunction of E1-E4 as defined below.

E1: Many, if not most, Holocaust victims experienced biologically gratuitous physical pain.

E2: Holocaust victims experienced and/or witnessed events so horrific that the events constituted prima facie reasons for each victim to doubt whether the victim's life (given their inclusion in the Holocaust) was a great good to the victim on the whole.

E3: So many victims of the Holocaust did not report feeling God's comforting presence.

E4: So many devout Jewish survivors of the Holocaust became nonbelievers.

The arguments presented in sections 3.1 through 3.4 are a cumulative case. If we let Pr(X | Y) represent the epistemic probability of X conditional upon y; N represent naturalism; and T represent theism, then this cumulative case may be summarized as follows.

(1) Pr(E1 | N) >! Pr(E1 |T). (from section 3.1)

(2) Pr(E2 | E1 & N) >! Pr(E2 | E1 & T). (from section 3.2)

(3) Pr(E3 | E1 & E2 & N) > Pr(E3 | E1 & E2 & T). (from section 3.3)

(4) Pr(E4 | E1 & E2 & E3 & N) >! Pr(E4 | E1 & E2 & E3 & T). (from section 3.4)

(5) Therefore, Pr(E | N) >! Pr(E | T). (from premises (1) - (4) )

In plain English, (5) may be restated as follows:

(5') Naturalism has much more predictive power than Theism does with respect to the Holocaust.

Having now shown that the occurrence of the Holocaust is very much less probable on theism than on naturalism, let us now turn to the task of using this result in an argument against theism. 

4. An Argument from the Holocaust Against Theism 

Even if the result of section 3.5 is correct, it doesn't follow that theism is probably false. In order to justify the conclusion that theism is probably false, additional premises are needed. But which premises? One approach, suggested by Draper, is to use the premises in the following argument.[21]
(5') Naturalism has much more predictive power than Theism does with respect to the Holocaust. 
(6) Naturalism is much simpler than Theism. 
(7) Any epistemic advantages that Theism has over Naturalism (i.e., any factors that raise the ratio of the probability of Theism to the probability of Naturalism) do not, even when combined, suffice to offset the epistemic advantages that Naturalism has over Theism if premises 1 and 2 are true. 
So, (8) Theism is probably false.
I have defended premise (5') in section 3 of this essay, but I have not defended (6) or (7) nor do I intend to do so here. A defense of both premises would require an essay at least as long as this one, but there is no need. Draper's entry on "Atheism and Agnosticism" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy already contains that defense; see sections 6.2 and 6.3.[22]

5. Theistic Objections

In this section, I will consider two groups of replies to premise (5').

5.1. Ineffective Replies

Allow me to begin by briefly mentioning and then rejecting what I consider to be ineffective replies.

1. The logical consistency of the Holocaust and theism. Because (5') neither explicitly states nor implies that theism is logically inconsistent with the occurrence of the Holocaust, to defend theism by appealing to mere logical consistency is to completely miss the point of the argument. Allow me to explain.

Using the logical vs. evidential distinction defined in Section 2, we may define a "defense" as an attempt to show that there is no logical inconsistency between some known fact about evil and theism. For example, according to the "free will defense," it is logically possible that theism is true and that God chose to create a world with the possibility of moral evil. Defenses are an appropriate response to so-called logical arguments from evil because such arguments attempt to show a contradiction between theism and some known fact about evil, but they are worthless against evidential arguments from evil because evidential arguments from evil do not attempt to show such a contradiction. The argument sketched in section 4 does not explicitly state, imply, or entail that there is a logical inconsistency between theism and the Holocaust. Therefore, any defense, not just the free will defense, is doomed to failure when deployed against any evidential argument from evil. This does not mean that free will itself is irrelevant to (5'), however. In order to be relevant, it needs to be part of a theodicy, not a defense. I will say more about this in the next section.

2. The (alleged) amorality of atheism or naturalism. Many theists like to respond to arguments from 'evil' by appealing to a certain kind of moral objectivity, which I will call "objective-1." A moral property is objective-1 if and only if what makes an action, state of affairs, or person have that moral property is independent of the subjective states of human beings, such as their beliefs or desires. This concept of moral objectivity is used to give the following theistic response to arguments from evil against theism. Moral values require a standard of valuation. If theism is true, then some fact about God, such as His commands or His nature (=His essential attributes), is the standard of moral value. If theism is true, moral goodness is resemblance to some fact about God, such as obedience to God's commands or resemblance to God's nature, whereas moral badness or evil is disobedience to God's commands or contrariety to God's nature.[23] Similarly, if theism is true, then something like God's will or commands determines our moral duties, but if God does not exist, then nothing would be objective-1 morally required or forbidden. For this reason, there is no such thing as objective-1 evil if theism is false. 

This response to evidential arguments from evil employs the following thesis about moral ontology:

M: Moral properties, including both value (moral goodness and evil) and deontic (required, forbidden, permitted) properties, are objective-1.

Although I am inclined to agree that M is true, M has no obvious relevance to my claim in (5') that the Holocaust is strong evidence against theism. Again, let E represent the conjunction of E1 through E4. Premise (5') compares the likelihood of E on theism to the likelihood of E on naturalism; it does not compare the likelihood of E&M on theism to the likelihood of E&M on naturalism. Notice also that M is compatible with naturalism as defined in this essay, viz., source physicalism. Remember that although some philosophers define naturalism in a stronger sense ("nature is all there is"), in this essay I'm defining naturalism in a weaker sense (source physicalism). Naturalism in this weaker sense says nothing about the existence of abstract objects. For this reason, it is compatible with moral anti-reductionism (a/k/a "non-naturalism) defended by philosophers such as Moore and Wielenberg. Furthermore, theism is compatible with a more robust version of moral objectivity, a version which I will call "objective-2." A moral property is objective-2 if and only if what makes an action, state of affairs, or person have that moral property is mind-independent. The following thesis about moral ontology employs this version of moral objectivity:

M': Moral properties, including both value (moral goodness and evil) and deontic (required, forbidden, permitted) properties, are objective-2.

Notice that M' is inconsistent with moral properties being metaphysically dependent on God or any fact about God. If M' is true, then the proposition, "There is no such thing as objective-2 evil if theism is false," is itself false. So, again: what relevance could M possibly have to my claim that the Holocaust is strong evidence against theism?

The only conceivable way that it could be relevant would be if it showed that premise (5) or its equivalent (5') were false. But how could it do this? Again, here is (5):

(5) Therefore, Pr(E | N) >! Pr(E | T).

Notice that (5) contains an inequality. If M somehow lowers the value on the left-hand side, raises the value on the right-hand side, or both, then M refutes (5). But does it? M does not affect the value on the left-hand side, Pr(E | N), because objective-1 morality plays no role in the reasons for naturalism's 'prediction' of the Holocaust. But what about the right-hand side, Pr(E | T)? M does not boost Pr(E | T) simply because T entails M. On the assumption that theism is true, the objective-1 moral evil of the Holocaust is what gives us strong reason to predict its non-occurrence. In short, M gives us no reason at all to think that (5) or its equivalent (5') is false.

3. The existence of supernatural alternatives to theism. In some Internet circles, a popular reply to arguments such as mine is to ask, "What about some alternative conception of God than that of traditional theism?" But my argument is not intended to address such views about God; the argument is focused solely on theism and so this reply is not relevant.

5.2. More Promising Replies

In order to successfully defeat (5'), a critic would need to do one of the following: defend a theodicy; or defend probabilistic skepticism (a/k/a "skeptical theism").[24] Rather than try to address any specific instances of either approach, instead here I will simply sketch the conditions I think need to obtain for such replies to be successful.

1. Theodicies. Regarding the first option, I shall define a "theodicy" as a proposition which entails theism and offers an explanation for why God, if God existed, would allow some fact about evil (E), such as the occurrence of the Holocaust. (And notice that, as defined, "theodicy" includes any appeal to doctrines which belong to sectarian versions of theism, such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.) Theodicies are attempts to "boost" the antecedent probability of E conditional upon theism. Draper's original 1989 essay, "Pain and Pleasure," introduces what he calls the weighted average principle (WAP), which shows the pattern of probability relations which must obtain for a theodicy to be successful. In that essay, Draper applies the WAP to three different theodicies (two versions of a free will theodicy and the infinite intellect theodicy) and shows that they all fail.[25] In 2016, I applied the WAP to four additional theodicies defended by William Lane Craig (the knowledge of God, rebellion, afterlife compensation, and infinite goodness theodicies) and concluded that all four of those theodicies fail as well.[26] Any critics of premise (5') who wish to appeal to a theodicy must either show a flaw in Draper's or my refutations of the seven theodicies already considered or they must successfully identify some new theodicy and show that it satisfies the pattern of probability relations described by WAP.

Consider, for example, the following version of a free will theodicy, discussed in Draper's original 1989 article:

T2: God exists, and one of His final ends is for humans to have the freedom* to make very important moral decisions.

As Draper acknowledges, T2 accurately predicts the existence of evils for which humans are responsible.[27] But, as Draper also points out, T2 also makes three inaccurate predictions. First, T2 inaccurately predicts that humans would only be given great responsibility when they are worthy of it. Second, T2 inaccurately predicts that humans would be benefitted by having such responsibility. Third, T2 inaccurately predicts that humans who abuse their responsibility would have their responsibility decreased by God until they are worthy of a second chance. T2's predictive success is greatly outweighed by its three predictive failures.[28] Adapting Draper's conclusion to this paper, therefore, we may say that Pr(Holocaust | T2) is not significantly greater than Pr(Holocaust | theism & ~T2).

2. Probabilistic Skepticism. The basic idea behind probabilistic skepticism is to undercut that portion of premise (5') which implicitly relies upon an assessment of the probability of the Holocaust, conditional upon theism (hereafter, "Pr(Holocaust | theism)"). The logic behind this strategy is straightforward: if we have no idea about the value of Pr(Holocaust | theism), then we have no way to justify the comparative claim that the Pr(Holocaust | theism) is much less than Pr(Holocaust | naturalism). In my opinion, Draper's 1996 essay, "The Skeptical Theist," does an excellent job of identifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for such skepticism to succeed.[29] Any critic who wishes to appeal to probabilistic skepticism regarding (5') needs to satisfy the conditions listed by Draper in that essay.


The Holocaust is strong prima facie evidence against theism. While it does not disprove theism -- i.e., it doesn't show that it is impossible for theism to be true -- it does represent an important item of evidence which is far less probable on theism than on naturalism.


[1] Raymond Bradley, "The Free Will Defense Refuted and God's Existence Disproved" The Secular Web (2007),; Richard M. Gale, "Freedom and the Free Will Defense" Social Theory and Practice 16:3 (Fall 1990),  397-423, republished at; J.L. Schellenberg "A New Logical Problem of Evil Revisited" Faith and Philosophy 35 (2018): 464-472; Jordan Howard Sobel, Logic and Theism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Quentin Smith, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 137-57; James P. Sterba, Is a Good God Logically Possible? (Springer Verlag, 2019); and Ryan Stringer, "A Logical Argument from Evil" The Secular Web (2013),

[2] See J.L. Mackie, "Evil and Omnipotence," Mind 64 (1955): 200-12; and Alvin Plantinga, "The Free Will Defense" Philosophy in America ed. Max Black (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965), 204-220. 

[3] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Introduction to the Holocaust"

[4] Ibid.

[5] Andrea Weisberger, Suffering Belief: Evil and the Anglo-American Defense of Theism Toronto Studies in Religion 23 (New York: Lang, 1999), 7.

[7] Paul Draper, "Darwin's Argument from Evil." In Scientific Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion (ed. Yujin Nagasawa, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012), 49-70 at 66.

[8] Marilyn McCord Adams, "God Because of Evil: A Pragmatic Argument from Evil for Belief in God" in The Blackwell Companion to Evil (ed. Justin P. McBrayer and Daniel Howard-Snyder, Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley, 2013), 160-74 at 162.

[9] Elie Wiesel, Night (trans. Marion Wiesel, New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 25-26.

[10] Wiesel 2006, 26.

[11] Wiesel 2006, 30.

[12] Wiesel 2006, 32.

[13] Schellenberg offers additional reasons in support of the claim that God has a strong motive for preventing horrific suffering. According to Schellenberg, (i) God has not only propositional knowledge of horrific suffering, but knowledge of suffering by acquaintance. Furthermore, (ii) God is maximally compassionate. I take no position on these additional claims, but, if they are correct, then I agree with Schellenberg that God, if He existed, would be maximally opposed to horrific suffering. See J.L. Schellenberg, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 243-247.

[14] Schellenberg 2007, 244.

[15] Schellenberg 2007, 244.

[16] Wiesel 2006, 3.

[17] Wiesel 2006, 69.

[18] William L. Rowe, "The Evidential Argument From Evil: A Second Look," in The Evidential Argument From Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Indiana University Press, 1996), pp. 262-285 at 276.

[19] Wiesel 2006, 45.

[20] Schellenberg 2007, 229.

[21] Draper 2013, 68-69.

[22] Draper, Paul, "Atheism and Agnosticism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

[23] [23] On the former, see T.J. Mawson, “God’s Creation of Morality.” Religious Studies 38 (2002): 1-25, On the latter, see Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[24] The term "skeptical theism" was coined by Paul Draper in his essay, "The Skeptical Theist," in Daniel Howard-Snyder (ed.) The Evidential Argument From Evil (Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1996), 175-92. He now considers that label an unintentional product of his own bias and regrets it. For that reason, I'm adopting the unconventional but less partisan term, "probabilistic skepticism." 

[25] See Paul Draper, “Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists.” Nous Vol. 23, No. 3 (June 1989): 331-350. Reprinted in The Evidential Argument from Evil ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Indianapolis, IA: Indiana University Press, 1996): 12-29.
[26] Jeffery Jay Lowder, "In Defense of an Evidential Argument from Evil: A Reply to William Lane Craig," The Secular Web (2016),

[27] Draper 1989, 343-45.

[28] Draper 1989, 344-45.

[29] Draper 1996.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Baggett's and Wall's Proposed IBE Criteria

In an earlier post, I attempted to steelman the abductive moral argument set forth by David Baggett and Jerry Walls (hereafter, "B&W") in their book God and Cosmos. In this post, I want to pick up where that post left off and turn to my second question for evaluating the schema of B&W's schema for their abductive moral argument. Recall that my second question was as follows:
Are the proposed criteria for explanation candidates meaningful, unambiguous, and justified?
With that question in mind, then, let us review what B&W have to say about the matter. In their book, they write:
Abductive criteria for narrowing the field of explanation candidates down to one can vary, but here is one attempt at it: (1) explanatory power; (2) explanatory scope; (3) plausibility; (4) degree of "ad hoc-ness"; and (5) conformity with other beliefs. The more explanatory power and scope and the more plausibility and conformity with other beliefs an explanation has, the better an explanation it is. The less ad hoc (adjusted, contrived, artificial) the explanation, the better as well. The trick is to subject all the explanation options to these tests in order to pick the one that is the best--and therefore the most likely true--explanation. (18)

The Meaning of B&W's IBE Criteria

Let us start with the meaning of the individual criteria. In doing so, I am going to largely endorse the objections made by Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti (hereafter, "C&C") against William Lane Craig's IBE argument for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Despite the obvious differences between that argument and B&W's moral argument, their list of IBE criteria has much in common. If, as I believe, Craig's IBE criteria are problematic, those same criteria in B&W's IBE argument will also be problematic.

"Explanatory Scope" and "Explanatory Power"Both Craig and B&W include in their criteria "explanatory scope" and "explanatory power," but this is problematic. And so paraphrasing what C&C write (regarding Craig's argument) and applying it to B&W yields the following.
B&W are unclear regarding how the criteria of explanatory scope and explanatory power (henceforth, scope and power) are to be interpreted and how these differ. Are they independent? If not,
then how are they related? B&W do not say. Their use of the word "more" suggests that, perhaps, B&W interpret scope and power as being roughly quantitative. But, given that this is so, then, to be clear, B&W needs to explain whether and, if so, how power thus interpreted differs from power as this is understood by other leading proponents of T such as Swinburne and the McGrews -- viz., as the Bayesian likelihoods of T and its rivals. B&W's insufficiently clear IBE approach fails to show how scope and power are interrelated — a deficiency that can be rectified by the Bayesian approach. Thus, on the Bayesian approach, the scope and power of any hypothesis Hi are most naturally interpreted as correlative aspects of the Bayesian likelihood P(E|B&Hi), i.e., the degree to which it is rational to believe evidence E on the basis of Hi in conjunction with background information B. On this interpretation, the scope of Hi is the range of facts contained in E in the term P(E|B&Hi) — the greater the range of facts, the greater the scope. Correlatively, the power of Hi is the magnitude of the term P(E|B&Hi) itself — the degree of likelihood that Hi confers on E — the greater the magnitude, the greater the power. The Bayesian approach shows why these are not independent criteria, contrary to how B&W seem to treat them. For, in general, the greater/lesser the scope, the lesser/greater the power, i.e., the greater/fewer the number of facts stated in E, the lower/higher the value of P(E|B&Hi). This is not to deny that Hi may be so strong that it can attain relatively great scope and power simultaneously. But, nonetheless, if the scope is increased, then the power must decrease, and vice versa — if only minutely. (paraphrase of C&C)

"Plausibility": The meaning of "plausibility" is also problematic. And so paraphrasing what C&C write (regarding Craig's argument) and applying it to B&W yields the following.

B&W's IBE approach requires that hypotheses be compared on the basis of what they call “plausibility.” But what is plausibility and how is it to be assessed? Quoting Alvin Plantinga, B&W concede that "part of what makes an explanation good or bad is its [antecedent] probability" (20). This is just what Bayesians call "prior probability." After all, the plausibility of a hypothesis is surely a function of what the hypothesis states and of the background information relevant to it; but this is precisely the same for prior probability. Furthermore, both are matters of degree. Indeed, apart from there being a formalism for one and not the other, they seem indistinguishable. It thus seems entirely natural to identify the plausibility of any hypothesis Hi (e.g., T) with its prior probability P(Hi|B), i.e., the degree to which it is rational to believe Hi solely on the basis of B. Identifying plausibility with prior probability provides a clear interpretation of this notion. Thus, for example, the plausibility of the hypothesis that Galileo would be charged with heresy is simply its prior probability and is thus determined in precisely the same way — using the same background information. Moreover, prior probability has the advantage of occurring within a Bayesian framework that gives it a more precise function in determining the probability of a hypothesis on the total evidence for it. What B&W mean by plausibility seems indistinguishable from prior probability. (paraphrase of C&C)

There is an important difference between the Resurrection explanation (R), "God raised Jesus from the dead," and the explanation of classical theism (T), which I take B&W to define as something like the proposition, "There exists the greatest possible being who exemplifies all the great-making properties to the greatest maximal degree and to the greatest extent to which they're mutually consistent with one another."[1] Because T is a potential "ultimate" metaphysical explanation, there are no facts in our background information, extrinsic to the definition of T, which could affect the plausibility or prior probability of T. Only the content of T itself can affect T's prior probability. But because the content is "intrinsic" to T, it makes more sense to speak of T's "intrinsic probability" rather than its "prior probability." Although I won't defend these claims here, I believe the following two statements are true:

  1. Intrinsic probability is determined by modesty, coherence, and nothing else.
  2. The intrinsic probability of T is much lower than the intrinsic probability of naturalism, but not hopelessly lower.

"Degree of Ad Hoc-ness": B&W appeal to "degree of ad hoc-ness." I have no objection to how they define it, but I do wonder how "degree of ad hoc-ness" differs from "plausibility." As before, it seems to me that the Bayesian approach here is superior to the IBE approach. Suppose we make a distinction between a "core" hypothesis, such as classical theism, and an auxiliary hypothesis, such as Christian theism. If we wanted to determine if Christian theism were ad hoc, we could look at two things First, we could assess the prior probability of Christian theism conditional upon our background knowledge (including, for the sake of argument, classical theism). Second, we could assess whether there is any independent evidence for the auxiliary hypothesis, by using P(I|B&Christian Theism), where I represents "independent evidence, that is, evidence independent of the evidence for classical theism" and B represents our background knowledge. In my opinion, this is much more clear than the IBE approach favored by B&W.

"Conformity with Other Beliefs": This criterion seems clear enough; I have no "in principle" objection to it. In practice, I wonder how B&W will apply this criterion to the rival explanations they consider. But we may leave that topic for another time.


B&W explicitly state they intend their argument to be understood as an IBE. Their proposed IBE criteria are problematic in large part because most of them contain varying degrees of ambiguity. I believe that all of these ambiguities could be clarified by eschewing an IBE approach and instead adopting a Bayesian approach.


[1] See David Baggett and Jerry Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 52. Given that "classical theism" is B&W's preferred explanation for the facts about morality which they believe require an explanation, it strikes this writer as extremely odd that an explicit definition of "classical theism" appears nowhere to be found in their later book, God and Cosmos. At the time I wrote this blog post, I had read up to page 79 of the latter. I would have expected to find an explicit definition by this point in the book.

Baggett and Walls on 'The' Moral Argument vs. 'The' Argument from Evil

The idea that there is some sort of connection between moral arguments for theism, on the one hand and arguments from evil against theism, on the other hand, is not new. In this blog post, I want to comment on a very cryptic statement made by Baggett and Walls about this connection. In their book God and Cosmos, they write:

... Second, it should be said in such a case that the probability of theism has increased (by much or a little) relative to morality; in theory the probability of atheism could increase or decrease relative to other phenomena. (However, the success of the moral argument would decisively undercut the problem of evil, which tends to be counted as the best evidence against theism.) (20, boldface mine)

This is a strong claim by itself, but it is even stronger in light of how modest their abductive moral argument is. In my last post, I steelmanned their moral argument as follows:

  1. Hypothesis T of the set {T, A1, ..., An} is the best explanation of the evidence E in being superior to its rivals {A1, ..., An} in satisfying the five criteria for explanation candidates.
  2. The explanation candidates {T, A1, ..., An} are a jointly exhaustive set.
  3. Therefore, other evidence held equal, T is more probable than naturalism.
Now, contrast that argument with Paul Draper's evidential argument from pain and pleasure, widely considered to be one of the strongest, if not the strongest, versions of the evidential argument from evil.
  1. O [a statement consisting of known facts about biological pain and pleasure] is known to be true.
  2. Theism (T) is not much more probable intrinsically than the hypothesis of indifference (HI) [i.e., Pr(|T|) is not much greater than Pr(|HI|)].
  3. O is much more likely on the assumption that the hypothesis of indifference is true than it is on the assumption that theism is true [i.e., Pr(O | HI) >! Pr(O | T)].
  4. So, other evidence held equal, theism is probably false.
Suppose we grant, merely for the sake of argument, that the steelman version of Baggett's and Wall's abductive moral argument is successful. How, precisely, does the conclusion of that argument "decisively undercut" the conclusion of Draper's argument? At least in the introduction of their book (which is where the quotation above came from), Baggett and Walls do not say. Nor is it obvious to me. It seems to me that an additional argument is needed to justify the claim that, necessarily, a successful moral argument "would decisively undercut" evidential arguments from evil. Perhaps they give such an argument in chapter 3, which discusses the problem of evil. 

Steelmanning the Abductive Moral Argument of David Baggett and Jerry Walls

Chad of the blog "Truthbomb Apologetics" recently tweeted about the abductive, cumulative moral argument for God's existence set forth by Christian philosophers David Baggett and Jerry Walls in their book God and Cosmos.

As someone with great interest in metaethics and moral arguments for theism, this book had been on my "to buy" list for sometime. I decided to pick up a copy on Kindle. 

With the disclaimer that I haven't finished reading the book yet, the first thing I did after downloading the Kindle version of the book was to scan the book for a schema or other formal representation of the logical structure of their argument in premise and conclusion form. I didn't find one. So I decided to try to "reverse engineer" the schema for their argument as I read through the book.

Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE)

In their Introduction to Part I of the book, Baggett and Walls write:

When we speak of classical theism explaining morality, we are speaking of an "inference to the best explanation" ("IBE," for short) case for theistic ethics. (14)

They then mention three important components of an IBE: 

(1) the set of salient facts requiring explanation, (2) the list of explanation candidates, and (3) the criteria by which we reduce the field of candidates down to the one that is best. (14)

They then provide a convenient overview of the content to come throughout the book, grouped according to these three components. Regarding (1), the facts to be explained, Baggett and Walls write:

An abductive moral argument for God's existence begins with important moral realities. These are an important starting point, and such realities will include ontological matters (moral facts), epistemic matters (moral knowledge), performative matters (moral transformation), and facts about morality and rationality (including the convergence of happiness and moral virtue). (14)

While most of these are fairly self-explanatory, it is helpful to quote Baggett's and Wall's explanation of what they mean by "moral facts."

The sort of moral facts requiring explanation are objective, prescriptively binding moral duties, objective moral values, requisite moral freedom, ascriptions of moral responsibility, and other relevantly similar data of that ilk. (14) 

Let's turn to (2), the list of explanation candidates. As I read Baggett and Walls, their list of explanation candidates includes the following: classical theism, deontological theories, consequentialist ethics, evolutionary ethics, social contract theory, and secular virtue accounts. (18)

Finally, as for (3), they provide the following list of abductive criteria: (a) explanatory power; (b) explanatory scope; (c) plausibility, (d) degree of "ad hoc-ness"; and (e) conformity with other beliefs. 

The Argument Formulated as an IBE

As mentioned above, it is unfortunate that Baggett and Walls fail to state their abductive moral argument for theism in standard logical form. Nonetheless, their discussion (as summarized above) provides enough detail to arrive at a preliminary interpretation. Let B represent the conjunction of our relevant background information; E represent the conjunction of the facts to be explained; T represent classical theism; and A1, ..., An represent the alternative, nontheistic explanations listed above. I propose their argument has the following schema.

  1. Hypothesis T of the set {T, A1, ..., An} is the best explanation of the evidence E in being superior to its rivals {A1, ..., An} in satisfying the five criteria for explanation candidates.
  2. Therefore, other evidence held equal, T is more probable than naturalism.
The conclusion, stated in (2), seems to be consistent with the first (full) paragraph on page 20, which begins as follows:
This should serve as a needed reminder of a few important points to bear in mind as we proceed. If we were to conclude that classical theism provides, on examination, the best explanation of morality, and even assuming there is widespread agreement on the salient facts in need of explanation and theism's victory, what we can infer is limited in certain respects. First, perhaps morality increases the likelihood of theism but only by a marginal amount. Second, it should be said in such a case that the probability of theism has increased (by much or a little) relative to morality; in theory the probability of atheism could increase or decrease relative to other phenomena.... (20)

In order to evaluate the above schema, we may ask three questions. (1) Does the conclusion follow from the premises? (2) Are the proposed criteria for explanation candidates meaningful, unambiguous, and justified? (3) Does T, in fact, fulfill the five criteria for explanation candidates? In this blog post, I will only consider the first question.

Baggett and Walls explicitly claim that, if successful, their argument raises the probability of theism; they do not claim that, by itself, their argument shows that theism is more probable than not. (In the terminology of Richard Swinburne, the argument of Baggett and Walls is C-inductive, not P-inductive.) Because they use the language of probability, however, this immediately raises the objection: Baggett and Walls do not offer any reason to think that (2) follows from (1). Nor can they. Why? Because the above schema lacks a premise which says that the set {T, A1, ..., An} is jointly exhaustive. In my (admittedly incomplete) reading of their book so far, I have not found such a premise. Nor does this seem to be a mere speculative worry; Christian Miller, in his review of God and Cosmos, raises a related worry. He suggests that Baggett and Walls engage an incomplete set of anti-reductionist ("non-naturalistic") alternative explanations for moral facts and, more broadly, "don't engage in much detail with the leading work in meta-ethics today." So, if Miller and I are correct that Baggett and Walls do not consider a jointly exhaustive set of explanation candidates, this would be a major flaw in their argument. Their argument would violate the laws of probability. 

In fairness to Baggett and Walls (and as Miller notes in his review), the "the field of contemporary meta-ethics is a vast and difficult terrain." And so Baggett and Walls might object that assessing a jointly exhaustive set of of secular alternative explanations is a monumental task because there might be too many. Miller, in his review, suggests that Baggett and Walls raise precisely this point later in the book. Nevertheless, different alternative explanations can be collected together in groups and evaluated as a group. So, for example, instead of discussing anti-reductionist (a/k/a "non-naturalist") theory AR1, then AR2, ..., and then ARn, one could simply mount an argument against all anti-reductionist theories as a set, criticizing features common all individual members of the set. 

So one way to steelman their argument would be to add a premise which states the set of explanations considered are jointly exhaustive.
  1. Hypothesis T of the set {T, A1, ..., An} is the best explanation of the evidence E in being superior to its rivals {A1, ..., An} in satisfying the five criteria for explanation candidates.
  2. The explanation candidates {T, A1, ..., An} are a jointly exhaustive set.
  3. Therefore, other evidence held equal, T is more probable than naturalism.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Does Robert Adams Reject Craig's Moral Argument?

It is no secret that W.L. Craig relies upon the work of Robert Adams regarding metaethics, to defend his moral argument. It's therefore surprising no one has pointed out that Adams appears to reject a key premise of Craig's moral argument:

"What is true about goodness if God does not exist, or is not in fact a suitable candidate for the role of the Good? This is a conditional question about the actual world, not about other possible worlds; and I am confident of my answer to it. If there is no God, or if God is in fact not a suitable candidate for the role of the Good, then my theory is false, but there may be same other salient, suitable candidate and so some other theory of the nature of the good."

Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 46.

Adams' book is very dense and so I openly admit I may be misinterpreting him, but I don't think that I am. Adams seems to be saying, "I think the Good = God, but if I am wrong about that, then good (or even the Good?) can still exist even if God does not."

Now consider William Lane Craig's moral argument for God's existence:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
If I am interpreting Adams correctly, then it would seem to follow that Adams rejects premise (1).